Editor’s Introduction October/November 2021: The Ethics of Pan-Lutheran Dialogue

[1] The news cycle continues to bewilder.  Listening to the news demands we think seriously about the central questions of ethics.  Philosophically and theologically we ask, “What ought we do?” Pragmatically, we ask, “What can we do?” As we think about our call to serve the common good, one important action is to build partnerships which requires communicating across boundaries of division. This issue brings together writers who create vehicles for dialogue and partnerships across divisions that separate Lutherans from each other.  Given the events of our current moment, such dialogue and partnership is necessary if we are to act “for the good of all.” (Galatians 6:10)

[2] The global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus continues to rage. While Americans debate vaccine mandates, many in the world do not have access to vaccines at all. Furthermore, in the United States hospital beds are full, and 1500 Americans are dying every day of Covid.  We wonder. “What ought I do?” “What can I do?”

[3] Wild fires and tropical storms are causing remarkable damage, devastation, and death. While Americans debate the effect of human action on the climate, wild fires have continued to burn across wide sections of the United States causing hazy skies and respiratory problems far from the source of the fires. On the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ida caused devastating flooding and wind damage in Louisiana and Mississippi before continuing up the coast to cause flooding, death, and destruction in New York and New Jersey.  We wonder. “What ought I do?” “What can I do?”

[4] The Taliban has retaken much of Afghanistan as the United States withdraws it last troops. While Americans debate rules for asylum seekers and immigrants, many worry about women and girls who live in Afghanistan.  Those Afghan allies who are being evacuated to the United States often have nothing but the clothes on their backs when they arrive.  We wonder.  “What ought I do?” “What can I do?”

[5] New laws in Texas limit abortion access and create a new ability for private citizens to bring charges against anyone helping to provide services to women that result in the termination of pregnancy.  While Americans debate the ethics of abortion, doctors, nurses, and pastors seek guidance on how to best support women who are in crisis.  We wonder. “What ought I do?” “What can I do?”

[6] Importantly, we can find resources in our social statements, especially those on Church in Society,  Health and Health Care, Caring for Creation, and Abortion.  Also, JLE has diverse articles on these topics in our December/January 2019 issue on Immigration, our February/March 2020 issue on Faith, Science, and Climate Change, our May 2020, April 2021, and May 2021 issues on Covid, and our January 2005, May 2010, and November 2012 issues that deal with Abortion.

[7]  Just as importantly, there are resources for the pragmatic questions too.  Donating to Lutheran Social Services  and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services through the ELCA helps these organizations help Afghan and other refugees. Giving to Lutheran Disaster Response through the ELCA and the Lutheran World Relief helps these organizations help those who are impacted by natural disasters.

[8] In times like these, when the individual feels helpless, we are grateful for partnerships.  Thus, it is the topic of partnerships that this issue of JLE addresses.

[9] The Lutheran church is, of course, a global church, diverse in its associations.  This issue discusses the need for and the possibility of dialogue and mutual support for Lutheran ministries, even and especially, across lines of difference.  In particular this issue focuses on the need for and the possibility of conversation between Lutherans in different associations in the United States, particularly the ELCA, the WELS, the LCMS, and the NALC.

[9] At the 500th anniversary year of the Diet of Worms, Lutherans are often quick to think that a single issue demands taking a “stand.”  After all, Luther took a famously divisive stand after prayer,  reflection,  and reasoning led him to obey his conscience and refuse to recant his teachings on justification.  Yet, throughout his life he remained committed to continuing to speak with others.  Remarkably, in the end, it was he who consoled the indulgence seller Johannes Tetzl via a letter as Tetzl rested in his deathbed having been excommunicated and abandoned by the Roman Catholic church.

[10] The need for dialogue is spiritual and pragmatic.  Families are torn apart by divisions that do not allow parents to commune with children or even pray with their best friends.  I remember sitting next to an elderly woman at a funeral.  She whispered, “Ruth was my best friend.  But I’m not part of the ELCA.  My pastor said I could come, as long as I don’t take communion or say the liturgy. How I long to pray with you, though.” Without the possibility of sharing communion and, sometimes without even the possibility of unified prayer,  it can be more difficult to heal divisions in order to serve our neighbors together.  We are left often only with dialogue.

[11] But dialogue is not impotent.  In fact, Luther used the miracle of dialogue as a metaphor to explain what happens in the Eucharist. “[A]s my voice reaches so many ears, much more is Christ able to distribute himself whole and undivided into so many particles.”[i]  Dialogue is powerful, especially for those who believe that the Word can dwell in words.  My first issue as editor of JLE was about the ethics of dialogue across political lines. (October/November 2019). This issue two years later is about the ethics of dialogue across Lutheran boundaries.

[12] The three authors whose essays are included in this issue are people whose work provides vehicles for dialogue between Lutherans.  The essays explain the theological roots of pan-Lutheran conversation, the philosophical difficulty and need for such conversation, and the pragmatic fruits of such conversation done well.

[13] First, Robert Kolb, speaks historically about Luther’s own commitment to dialogue.  Kolb, a historian, is a frequent participant in pan-Lutheran discussion about Luther and the Reformation.  He publishes books on Luther for all manners of Lutherans (and non-Lutherans) from academic scholars to laity.  Furthermore, he has been a leader in academic associations where Luther research has flourished over the past half century.  He directed the Center for Reformation Research in the 1970s, did editorial work for Sixteenth Century Journal in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s,  served as president of the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in the 1980s and the Society for Reformation Research in the 1990s, and continues to be an important member of the North American Luther Forum and the Continuation Committee of the International Congress for Luther Research, a committee on which he has served for almost thirty years.   His essay explains the history of the Diet of Worms and reminds Lutherans and all Christians of how confessing our faith requires conversation with others.

[14] Second, R. David Nelson speaks of his work as the current editor of Lutheran Forum quarterly journal that was created specifically to be a vehicle for pan-Lutheran dialogue.  His essay explains the difficulty of cultivating conversation between Lutherans given current political divides at the same time as he insists on the necessity of such conversation.  He points specifically to the hard but necessary work of pro-curing, editing, and publishing articles on issues such as abortion in today’s climate.

[15] Third, Charlotte John-Gomez and Michelle Burmeister speak to their roles as President and Director of Communications for the Siebert Foundation, a pan-Lutheran philanthropic foundation that funds many Lutheran initiatives in Wisconsin and brings together Lutherans from three different associations at an annual conference.  At this conference, members of the ELCA, WELS, and LCMS pool knowledge from their lived experiences and share practical advice for ministry and service. Their essay highlights the accomplishments made by Lutherans working together to serve.

[16] This November, JLE will co-sponsor, along with the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College, an annual pan-Lutheran Cocktail hour at the American Academy of Religion. There, scholars of religion from many global associations of Lutherans will talk together about how what we have in common demands conversation.

[17] The divisions among Lutherans in the United States divide families.  They prevent sisters from praying together on Christmas Eve, brothers from taking communion together at their nephew’s baptism.  Divisions keep daughters who are ordained from officiating at their father’s funerals, and grandfathers from co-officiating at their granddaughters’ weddings.  As an ELCA Christian, my bias leans that we should pray and commune together to help us heal.  But barring that we should talk together: this issue is one vehicle for that conversation.
















[i]   Martin Luther. The Sacrament—Against the Fanatics.  LW 36:343

Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.